On Being a Victim

What differentiates victims who feel justified in murder from those who move on and enjoy life?

On August 23, 2015, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I stumbled across the following posts, written by several different people.

“Trump is definitely the next Hitler. History always repeats itself. Except he’ll be putting immigrants in concentration camps instead of Jewish people. He’s such a sick and twisted ‘human’ and I can’t believe people actually support him. Makes me sick to my stomach.”

“The American population is soooo stupid, really.”

“There’s no doubt that the hatred toward Hispanics is growing.”

“My own kindergarten teacher didn’t like me because I was a super smart Hispanic girl.”

“This country is going to kick out all Hispanics either born here or not. And then the society will have no one to work the hard working jobs that his people are not willing to work. They’ll go hungry!”

Three days later, on August 26, 2015, Vester Flanagan murdered TV reporter Alison Parker and photojournalist Adam Ward, his former coworkers. News accounts detail Flanagan taking offense at innocuous comments. If Parker said she would “swing” by a house, Flanagan insisted that she had made a derogatory reference to his being black. If someone said that reporters were “out in the field,” Flanagan would protest that the word “field” was a reference to cotton fields. Flanagan interpreted the “strategic location” of a watermelon a manager had brought in to share with staff as an act of harassment against him. He also alleged that the 7-Eleven convenience store chain’s sale of watermelon-flavored Slurpees was racist.

On August 28, 2015, near Houston, Texas, Deputy Sheriff Darren Goforth was shot from behind as he pumped gas into his car. Deputy Goforth was white. Shannon J. Miles, his accused killer, is black.

A theme links these three events: the cultivation of a sense of victimization.

My Facebook friend who initiated the conversation comparing Donald Trump to Hitler is a history teacher. My friend lives in Paterson, N.J. Jose Torres is the three-term mayor. He is Puerto Rican. Official city documents are published with Spanish translations; the national holidays of Latin American nations are celebrated city-wide at taxpayer expense. New Jersey senator Robert Menendez is Hispanic, as are his colleagues, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who are polling very well in their runs for president. My friend teaches her public school students in the Spanish language. My friend is a recent college grad; according to Princeton University researchers, Hispanic college applicants are awarded 185 bonus SAT points for no other reason than their ethnicity. These facts of Hispanic cultural, economic, and political clout belie the assertion that being Hispanic in the US is comparable to being a Jew in Nazi Germany.

I challenged my friend with these facts. My friend ignored them. She spoke to me with personal animus, as if I were the very Gringo who’d put her in a concentration camp – though in the past I had been helpful to her. She did not back down from the characterization of Americans as stupid, lazy, racists who treat Hispanics similarly to how Jews were treated in Nazi Germany.

One can’t help but relate Vester Flanagan’s hyper-sensitivity – or perhaps we should label it “paranoia” – to the concept of “microaggression.” Microaggression is a trend on university campuses. Students and professors are trained to be vigilant and to interpret stray comments as the mere visible manifestations of hidden, vast bigotry. In one campus presentation, a speaker informed his audience that a photograph of commuters climbing stairs to an elevated train platform was a microaggression against physically handicapped people.

We do not yet know the motive of the executioner of Deputy Goforth. One thing is certain. In the past year, public discourse has overflowed with demonization of police officers. Discussing the Goforth murder, Sheriff Ron Hickman mentioned “Rhetoric” that has “ramped up to the point where calculated cold-blooded assassination of police officers happens. We’ve heard black lives matter. … Cops’ lives matter too. Why don’t we drop the qualifier and say that all lives matter and take that to the bank?”

Recognizing that a cultivated sense of victimization is poisoning our society and even causing death gives me pause. I am a victim. Further, I am a member of a group that cultivates a sense of victimization. Am I any better than a Vester Flanagan?

I am deaf in one ear and I walk with a cane. My battle scars are mementoes from an ugly encounter had years ago when I was a graduate student. I was working for a professor who mistreated me. University officials, who had been looking for a way to end this professor’s reign of terror, plead with me to testify against her. I did so. She was black; I am white. I was her victim. I state as much any time I have to explain to someone why I am hearing impaired.

I don’t just identify as a victim on the individual level. I am a member of group that notoriously identifies as victims. My father was Polish. Once a Polish worker was resurfacing my sister’s driveway. I was sent outside to offer him lunch. He brought up the 1940 Soviet massacre of 22,000 Polish army officers in the Katyn forest. This massacre had nothing to do with the sunny day we were enjoying in a peaceful and prosperous New Jersey suburb. I had just met this man. But he was Polish, and he heard my Polish-American name, and he observed the ritual: Poles remember their martyrs. It’s a Polish thing.

In contemplating how awareness of victimization can mutate into rationalization of irrational hate and even violence, I thought of other Facebook friends, people who, unlike my Hispanic friend, have real family memories of what it is to be a concentration camp inmate – or what it is to be a Nazi.

Andrew, Joy, Otto and Vivian are children of survivors of history’s deadliest war. Soviet communists denied Joy’s mother an education because her family was aristocratic. Joy informed me that “My grandfather spent four and a half years in Auschwitz and Dachau. Later he rejoined his Polish regiment in Italy and fought the Nazis. An American military commander warned him not to return to Poland as he was on Stalin’s execution list. He got his family out a year later as they were being hunted by the communists.”

Andrew said that in Romania, “Before the war, my mum had fifty-three cousins, aunts, and uncles. After the war, only four remained. My father had a small family to begin with, but in his wider circle, the destruction was similar. Over the years, I found out more details, mostly through the Spielberg video of my mum.” Andrew faced life-stunting, even dangerous antisemitism in Romania. He became an exile. As he put it, “I had to find places where I could say ‘we’ in plural first person.” He must live his life in distant Australia. He must conduct his personal life in a foreign language.

Vivian reports, “My grandfather was on a work camp. All the Jewish women and children in Botoşani got to stay there to manage the town for the Nazis. The plan was to kill them at the end. My grandfather came home. It was summer. He was really tanned from the forced outdoor labor. My mother, who was five, was outside playing in the garden. He saw her and said, ‘Are you my daughter?’ She asked, ‘Who are you?’ He was crying so hard he could not answer.”

Otto’s grandparents were force-marched to Siberia. Otto said, “My mother turned 90 this year and still talks about having the officials and neighbors taking away what little they were attempting to save as they were marched out of town. The look in her eyes when she talks about this shows that she’s been transported back to her childhood and that painful time.”

It’s not just that so many of my Facebook friends’ family histories include genocide, exile, and loss. Often, our ancestors were victimizing each other. Some of my relatives were members of that same Communist Party that took everything from Joy’s family. Her ancestors were aristocrats. I think of them as the people who owned my ancestors and called them “cattle.” I mentioned this to Joy.

Joy responded, “My ancestors are held in high regard – because they did not treat people like cattle. When my grandmother fled in 1944 the palace and its contents were protected by the villagers. The Zamoyski Museum today is preserved exactly the way my grandparents left it.” Joy said this to me without bitterness.

I’m Catholic. Andrew and Vivian are Jewish. I have to assume that I have some ancestors who participated in pogroms. Otto’s parents were Nazis. We all get along. All four of these people have been genuinely kind and helpful to me.

Andrew, Joy, Vivian and Otto are white-collar professionals. Their Facebook posts tend to focus on their latest celebration or accomplishment or intellectual curiosity.

If being a victim and cultivating a sense of victimization is not the entire answer to how people become twisted haters, and even killers, what is the missing ingredient?

Towards the end of my year-long ordeal at Indiana University, a top administrator asked me what I would like her to do to the professor who had wronged me. My early Catholic training kicked in. I told the IU official that I wanted no revenge and I asked that none be taken on my behalf.

I was inspired by a vivid memory of my mother. The only time I can remember that tough woman crying was when she stopped cleaning house to watch TV coverage of Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia in 1968. Six years later, we visited her tiny natal village where graffiti from ‘68 still marked walls. We passed Russian soldiers; I stuck out my tongue. My mother told me to stop. “Be nice,” she said. “They can’t help it.” She smiled at them. She was never more beautiful.

When I met Lech Walesa in 1998, I asked him, “You changed history peacefully. In so many other countries, that level of change could only happen violently. How did you do it?”

Walesa cited the Judeo-Christian tradition. He said that given Poland’s strong Catholic faith, there was no way they would throw off genocidal powers by becoming genocidal themselves.

Not all those who have been victimized and who do not use that as carte blanche to become victimizers are guided by the Bible. Andrew is an atheist. A different spark inspires Andrew’s rejection of aggrieved victim status. He is aware of the losses that others’ hate has exacted from his life, but loss is not his focus, and he never speaks of revenge. He often speaks of Romania, and of Christians, with affection and respect, for example when he told me, “I sang Christmas carols in Romania in 1968. I felt honored to be invited to that clandestine event. My classmates knew I was Jewish, but the songs were an act of defiance against communism.” Andrew is similarly grateful to his adopted homeland. He recently posted photos of a delicious pancake and ice cream dessert, which he savored. “In this photo, my double chin speaks of being content in Australia.” Andrew said to me, “We made every effort to be more in our lives than just survivors of the Holocaust. Life and history must have more purpose than merely limping home from an extermination camp.”

There is some step between acknowledging that one is a victim and deciding that since one is a victim one has license to ignore objective facts and cultivate hatred. Another step or series of moves past “I am a victim” and “I don’t have to pay attention to objective facts” to “I, therefore, have reason to wallow in despair, give up on life, and kill others.” Vivian, a psychiatrist, reminds me that some people are “psychotic” – too mentally ill to make sound decisions. I am not qualified to comment on that. All I can say is that I know people who have genuinely suffered, whose ancestors have suffered, and who have refused to use their suffering as carte blanche to hurt others. I wanted to salute them, as our country is wracked by news accounts of those who have used their sense of victimization as a license to lie, to hate, and even to kill.